Roswell Brayton’s account of Westport harbor during 1938 hurricane
Posted on January 20, 2009 by Jenny ONeill
Account of the Hurricane of September 21 written on September 24, 1938
It is my purpose to write down what occurred on September 21 while the scenes are still fresh in my mind. It is the most overwhelming event that I have been familiar with, in which I actually took part.
On the morning of the 21 with three friends of the Harvard Cross Country team we went to the golf club to jog and run for cross country. It was a very pleasant day with a slight southerly wind. We practically had the course to ourselves as there were but three groups of players, Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Hubbard, and Mrs. Gifford, and Mrs. Hawes I believe, the second group was Ben Gifford and a man, the third group I am not sure of, perhaps that was all. At eleven thirty, we returned to our house from the Acoaxet Club. After doing a few exercises on the grass, we went to the beach for a swim. The tide was practically dead low. I noticed that the waves broke quite far out, for it was difficult to ride them to the beach as one can do with smaller waves that break a little above your waist.
Our lunch was a late one. After lunch which could not have been over much before two, we sat around read, and listened to Anthony Eden’s address condemning the position of Chamberlain for trying to make terms with Hitler. The broadcast was interrupted in the middle, due I believe to the interruption of the electrical service. We were going to play tennis but by that time the window in the guest room had broken. The wind had been rising steadily and the tide was coming in. It took us some time to pull in the blinds, the wind having become very powerful. It was so strong by 3 o’clock that I could not get the blind back on their hinges. Looking out the window I saw Betty Barnes speaking to my sister. She said that the boats were being blown from their moorings and everyone was over at the river. I hurried up but by the time we got there it must have been 3:15 at least and probably not later than 3:30. The “Smuggler”, the Barker boy’s boat had gone way downstream and had narrowly missed Paul Gifford’s cutter which at that time did not seem to be pulling its mooring although it looked to me as though it were very close to Dr. French’s motor boat.
The oncoming storm showed its strength in the way it pushed the floats around. When out of the shelter of the Hawes’ boathouse, we could feel the force of the wind out on the wall to the pier. It seemed to me that it must have been between 45 mph and 50 at that time. I thought that the surf at the Point of Rocks ought to be spectacular for the boys to see so I took them over there probably around 3:45.
The wind was driving the spray so hard that you could hardly see. When we went in and out of the car, it took practically all our strength to hold the doors. The wind must have been going 55 mph and more at that time. It was a struggle to walk back to the car which we left by Mitchell’s house as a telephone pole was about to fall. In going back to the car, I noticed that the ocean was coming up over the road and going over to the river I continued driving the car along Atlantic Avenue, but by the time we reached the pavilion I began to think it unwise. The road had a great deal of debris on it. The ocean had already come through all the way from the pavilion beyond the Mills’ house. At one time the car actually acted as though it was going to stall. The water was so high. We just made it through. I thought if we stalled we might ruin the car but I did not yet think that the storm was going to go as far as it did.
When we got to Dick Hawes’ land, a car came out taking the ocean route to the harbor. Ii thought that I ought to warn them that it was practically impossible, my brakes were wet, and by the time I slowed down, they had gone on. I didn’t think that I could catch them so I drove on the other way, warning one man not to take the ocean road. When we reached the low point of land by Wilbur’s and the Ditch House, the water was again above the road. Westport Harbor was an island. On arriving back at the house probably about 4:15 the Hawes’ came in sight. Their car had stopped and they had come straight up to our house which was about 6 feet above the lower houses. I drove Mrs. Hawes, Sim and Dickie back to their house and came back as fast I could for I feared that I would be cut off from the Harbor if the water rose any higher above the road. It was at this time around 4:30 that the storm began to play havoc. Red had brought Mrs. Davol to our house I helped her in.
Penn was taking pictures. I went to see where Gene was. Red, Gene and I drove to the Rogers’ house as Red said it was necessary to get them out. I saw Mrs. Rogers with Mrs. Hubbard in the car on the road by their house. I asked her if anyone was in the house. She said the girls were in there. I dashed in through the water which was already deep than two feet. Tudy and the two maids were inside. I yelled for them to leave right away. Gene and Red came in. They helped two of them out. I carried out one who was too frightened to go through the water. I went back and got her suitcase.
We drove back to out house. I sent the maids into the kitchen to get warm and ran forward to see where Penn was. He had stayed behind to take pictures which I have just seen and are very remarkable. On returning to the back of the house I met Red who thought that we should open the Abbott House as that was the highest one at Westport.
Mrs. Hubbard drove over to our house where I met her. I got in with her and went up the hill to Abbot’s. She naturally was very excited and only thought how worried Mr. Hubbard would be. She insisted that she ought to try to get out. I told her that it was impossible. I said that it would be better to let him be frantic for a few hours than to lose her for the rest of his life, and finally that we would not allow her to go.
I returned to the house discovering that the water was still rising. The Barker’s house was about ready to go. I didn’t stay long to watch the sight but went in the house. Mother was doing something, but it was no use to block up the windows as they kept breaking. I told her that we would have to get out. She got her Sheffield candlesticks and joined Charlotte and the boys in the car. Helen, our maid, this summer and Florence Coolidge’s were also there in the car. We drove to Abbots’ as that was the highest point. There were perhaps twenty-five other people up there. Some of them went to Charlton’s. I drove into the field below as I thought we could go from there to the highest point if the water continued to rise and was for the time being out of the wind. After staying there some time, we and the Barnes drove to Charlton’s and joined the others. Leaving the rest, the boys and I drove back to the house to get what we could out. We collected clothes and silver. Dick Hawes came in and I told him everyone was over to the Charltons and I watched the water as we worked. It did not come over the wall. We drove back to the Charletons’ around six. After I had a hot shower, I saw the water was not coming any closer. It was then by watch 6:30. The crisis had passed.
It was quite a funny assortment at the Charltons, probably around 75 people including the maids. Mrs. Rogers, Tudy, Mrs. Hubbard, Mrs. Barnes, Miss Hills, Betty, Mary Truesdale, Mrs. Davol, Red, Dick Hawes (Sr.), Ben Gifford, Pat Barker, Jack Barker, Bob and Ted Borden, Mrs. Mathews, a French doctor and his wife, Charlotte, Penn Tuttle, Gene Clark, Mother, the Maple Street Laundry man, maids from all the households mentioned. Mother and I went to Macombers to get some flashlights and got some food out of the house which we took back. Mr. Davol came thru and I drove Mr. Hawes to the Woodwards and gave him a flashlight. He got thru all right. The Bordens went to Woodwards and later went out to get in touch with their Mother. Ben told me at supper some time before this that Wee Anne Mills, Louise and Mary Block had been in their house. It looked as though they were drowned and Mrs. Waring also. I felt sick about it and went upstairs and prayed. Ben and I went to Woodwards looking for Mrs. Burton. We found her and – she argued a very long time. She did not want to leave and came back to take care of Mrs. Mathewson. Finally she did. Mrs. Mathewson later went back to the Woodwards with her. I saw several rough-looking men come over the road with lights. Ben and Mary Truesdale and I went around by our house and saw the wreckage. We drove up to Woodwards and left the cars. We walked through the water and skirted the places where the road was washed out. A man gave us a lift to the Wheelers. Father was there and I told him the family was all right. Mr. Wheeler said Dwightie Waring had come thru on a log and so had Wee Anne Miller. Louise had been on the other side. Mrs. Waring had not been heard from. Ben went home, Mary and I returned to the Charleton’s. We saw a large group of rough boys and men go in. I was alarmed but found that there were Bshera’s friends of theirs looking for Mr. Bshera and his brother. Everyone told them what they knew and Mrs. Hubbard said a lot of stories which she was not sure they were right or wrong. Finally someone told Mrs. Hubbard not to talk any longer to them as we wanted to get them out. They had been drinking and were a rough crew. All the ladies found beds. The boys slept downstairs.
The next morning showed us the disaster. Not a house left on the ocean from the Point of Rocks to the Fish’s house.
The only three deaths that I know of were Mary Black, the Mills’ cook, who was found near the Dennett’s house on the Wheeler property, Mrs. McNabe who was last seen in Mrs. Waring’s house, and Mrs. Waring’s girl, an Almy,
It was a desolate scene. We boarded up our house and moved to Fall River. The militia came down Thursday and were later found looting themselves. I have learned that several expect to repair and rebuild so that conditions may not be so bad as they at first seemed.
The Dennett’s house went up the pond, across the road and into the Wheeler’s farm. The top floor was alright and a dog was found sleeping on the bed. John Brayton’s and the Barker’s tops of houses were dropped by the Ditch house. The golf course was littered with tops of about seven house and Mrs. Ryder’s old cabana which was unharmed. The Mills’ found their dog in the house but nothing else to speak of.
It was very fortunate that most of the houses along the ocean had been vacated.